Pakistani floods could further hurt unstable nation as military focuses on aid

By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 18, 2010; A01

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN -- Staggered by the scale of destruction from this summer's catastrophic floods, Pakistani officials have begun to acknowledge that the country's security could be gravely affected if more international aid does not arrive soon.

The floods have submerged an area roughly the size of Italy, displaced 12 percent of the population and destroyed billions of dollars worth of infrastructure and crops.

But with the government admittedly overwhelmed and foreign aid trickling in, the worst may be still to come, as Pakistan struggles to deal with food shortages, disease outbreaks and a mass migration of homeless families. All those factors have the potential to further destabilize a nation undermined by weak governance and a vicious insurgency even before the crisis.

"There are already signs that people are restive," said Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, a Pakistani military spokesman. "If not addressed, it could balloon and will create a security situation in the areas where the government has not taken care of people's needs."

The army has had to reorient itself in recent weeks, shifting its focus from counterinsurgency toward relief and recovery missions. A potential offensive in the militant haven of North Waziristan has been placed on indefinite hold, as has the resettlement of hundreds of thousands of refugees from last fall's battle in South Waziristan. Meanwhile, efforts to rebuild the Swat Valley, the scene of intense fighting last year, are back to square one after flooding from monsoon rains knocked out every bridge and many schools, health clinics and communication towers.

"The so-called war on terror has to be on hold," said Ayaz Amir, a security analyst and a member of Pakistan's Parliament. "As long as the nation, the government and the army are dealing with this flood situation, the war takes a back seat."

That is bad news for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, where commanders seeking to turn around a flagging war effort are relying heavily on Pakistani cooperation. It could particularly affect plans in eastern Afghanistan, where the United States had been contemplating a fall offensive in areas across the border from North and South Waziristan.

So far, the Pakistani Taliban has not made any visible efforts to exploit the three-week-old crisis, although some Islamic charities linked to banned militant groups have distributed aid in certain areas. Abbas said there was no indication that the group was mobilizing for major attacks, and analysts said Taliban operations could have been hamstrung by the floods. The group might also be wary of alienating the public by carrying out strikes at a time of mass hardship.

"We can do with a lull on both sides," Amir said.

Fertile recruiting grounds

But it's not clear that the lull will last. The floods have inundated some of the poorest and least-accessible areas of Pakistan, many of which were already fertile recruiting grounds for militants. Some heavily affected areas of Swat can be reached only by helicopter, and residents are building wooden bridges by hand to reestablish links to the outside world.

Southern parts of Punjab province, too, have been heavily affected, exacerbating the threat from Taliban affiliates that have moved in recent years to expand their influence beyond Pakistan's northwest.

The center of militancy in Pakistan remains North Waziristan, and while it was not among the worst-hit parts of the country, the army's focus on the floods means any counterinsurgency operation there now is extremely unlikely.

"The government is face to face with massive problems from the flood. There are millions of displaced people. If they go for the operation in North Waziristan, there would be many more," said M. Kamran Khan, a member of Parliament representing North Waziristan. "It's not possible for the government to take care of more people."

Even before the floods hit, Pakistan had been reluctant to move into North Waziristan, despite months of intense U.S. pressure. Whereas South Waziristan was home to the Pakistani Taliban, militant groups in the north -- including al-Qaeda and the Haqqani faction of the Taliban -- have generally been friendlier toward the Pakistani government and have focused their attacks across the border in Afghanistan.

Abbas, the military spokesman, said the United States has stopped pressuring Pakistan to go into North Waziristan, recognizing that such a move could backfire if undertaken when the army is overstretched.

"They have a better understanding now of our concerns and our constraints," he said. "For the near future, there's too much on our plate. We're totally involved in responding to this disaster."

'A lot of breathing space'

Gains made in South Waziristan have also been put in jeopardy by the floods. The army declared victory there late last year after weeks of battling insurgents, but residents have yet to return, and the army says plans to escort them back have been delayed.

Out of Pakistan's 500,000-member army, about 60,000 troops are involved in flood-related rescue and relief work. So far, those troops have been called up from the reserves or from training and have not been pulled from active military operations. But with the flood response taking up critical resources, including helicopters, the army is clearly constrained.

"There is now a lot of breathing space for the Pakistani Taliban and their allies in the tribal areas," said Hasan-Askari Rizvi, a political and defense analyst. "They know they will soon be able to cash in on the ammunition that develops as the people are alienated from the government."

That alienation is already apparent. The government says it is doing everything it can to provide flood victims with food, water and shelter, but it admits it does not have nearly enough resources to help the estimated 20 million people affected.

In recent days, Pakistanis rendered homeless by the floods in the southern province of Sindh have taken to the highway in protest, blocking traffic and setting fires. Across the country, fights have broken out among increasingly desperate aid recipients as they compete for every sack of flour and bottle of water.

The United Nations said Tuesday that money and provisions are in short supply and that only about a third of the $459 million in emergency funds it asked for last week had arrived.

The World Bank redirected $900 million worth of previously committed loans Tuesday to flood recovery, but aid groups continued to plead for money that can be used immediately to help those at risk.

The United States has provided $87 million in flood assistance, more than any other country. Meanwhile, even stalwart allies of Pakistan, such as China and Saudi Arabia, have been slow to provide money.

"We have a country which has endemic watery diarrhea, endemic cholera, endemic upper respiratory infections," Daniel Toole, UNICEF's regional director for South Asia, said Tuesday at a news conference in Islamabad. "We have the conditions for much, much expanded problems."

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